This summer, conference administrators allowed me to speak in the adult auditorium at camp meeting — the “adult table.” The experience left me with a variety of new things to reflect on.
One of them happened while teaching my seminar on how technology shapes our being and our belief. While scrolling through various comments on our conference Facebook page (yes, we corporately “creeped” together as a class) to explore how people communicate online, we came across the videos of all the speakers in the auditorium.
We looked through several videos but focused on the little “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” icons indicating whether or not someone approved of the message or not. Some speakers had all likes; most had some likes and dislikes. No comments. Just “likes” or “dislikes.”
One of the questions we grappled with in the class is, “What happens to our message when we filter it through technology?” In this case it appears the sermon, a dialogue on biblical truth, simply became a commodity to “like” or “dislike” but not necessarily engage with.
At the time my video had only one comment — in German. As a class we translated it, and it turned out to be someone professing support for the Catholic Church and calling for the end of the Adventist “sect.” I don’t preach in German, so I am not sure this person listened at all, which only emphasizes the point — it has become a commodity to critique instead of thoughtfully engage. Scholars note how YouTube has led to a culture of critics who make their comments without any context for what they are criticizing.1
Beyond that, I asked the class if I should base the “success” or quality of my sermon based on the “likes” it received. Should a preacher or singer or composer look to “shares” as confirmation that their gifts are worthy?
YouTube is credited with initiating a participatory culture, where anyone can upload content for the masses — bypassing traditional authorities such as publishers, record companies and academic committees. So how are we to determine what is worth creating, watching or listening to?
Combine this with Facebook’s tendency to move people toward “presentation anxiety” (i.e. how should I present myself online to create the best image and gain the most popularity?). Have we created a culture akin to the gold rush of 1849? The California Gold Rush was the largest mass migration in U.S. history — increasing the non-native American population by 100,000 in a year.2 By 1850 it attracted immigrants from around the world, and more merchants became wealthy than actual miners.2 In its first five years YouTube amassed more video footage than the entire history of American television.1
Because a comparative handful strikes it big, do we now have conversations about how to get our church more “hits” or “likes” or “shares”? Is this generation growing up in a digital environment that holds out the promise of fame and fortune if you can just say that nugget of truth, develop a voice that sparkles on a podcast, capture that perfect selfie, or do something as simple as putting on a Chewbacca mask and laughing, then retailers, tech companies or Google pay for it and bring you fame and fortune without having to go through the conventional channels of education, discipline or seeking to craft something of quality?
The world holds out true success stories of brilliant musicians and CEOs (i.e. Lindsey Stirling, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) who miraculously bypassed convention due to either perfect timing, preternatural insight or extreme giftedness (or all of the above) that inspire us to open our own websites, YouTube channels and public platforms.
However, if we look closely we see vastly more videos and images of people hurting themselves, endangering themselves, or posing and making themselves up to get attention of … who? A modeling agency? A crowd of music fans? Nike, Adidas or Reebok? And when a video of someone hurting themselves is especially hilarious, garnering lots of attention, does that then call forth more acts of stupidity to make millions laugh at the advertisers' expense instead of ours — since they are the one running the commercial on our video?
Social media has decentralized authority and created tremendous opportunities for many, but are we now in the middle of a “fame rush”? Millions of people continue to migrate and live much of their life online — hoping not only for connection, but increased attention. As we continue to integrate religious content, and our own personal content, with the internet, will we face a temptation to bypass thoughtful work in favor of conforming to what’s trending on Twitter?
Scripture has always called us to meditate on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy” (Phil. 4:8). In our rush to use every tool at our disposal to share the gospel and Three Angels' Messages and make a difference, we must take more care than ever before to make sure our messages are shaped by what is biblical, beautiful and meaningful — not just what is marketable.
- C. Detweiler, IGods: How technology shapes our spiritual and social lives (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2013), 175.
- B. Maranzani, "8 Things You May Not Know About the California Gold Rush," 2013, accessed June 24, 2016, http://www.history.com/news/8-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-california-gold-rush.